Thursday, May 26, 2011

William Shakespeare: Cymbeline

It took Charlotte's post over at Inklings about independent bookstores and her thoughts on eReader sales to remind me that I haven't reviewed Shakespeare's Cymbeline yet, though I finished it over a month ago.

First, the eBook connection. For the most part I prefer reading real books. But when I'm traveling I'd rather go with a bunch loaded up on my Reader. (Though the first time I heard the flight attendant say "Can you please turn of your book? We're getting ready to descend?" I found it a little jarring.) Also, when my hard copy of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare weighs and takes up as much space as a couple of bricks, it's much easier to read it on the eReader. Though a word of advice to publishers, if it's in the public domain why not offer it as a free download? You might lose a small profit by having to pay someone to format it, but you don't have to pay an author. Give that away for free and you'll entice people like me to your site, I'll get that one and probably buy another book or two while I'm there, meaning you'll make money in the long run. My entire eVersion of the Complete Works of Sheakespeare by project Gutenberg is free. At the Sony eReader store they have a copy of the complete works for $7.99. Not bad, but why pay at all when I can get it for free? It's not it comes in a fine leather bound edition that'll look all fancy on my book shelf. It gets even worse when you buy the separate plays-- averaging about $4 each, or $148 dollars for the complete set. Again, it's not like a real book where you don't want the entire volume cramping your hand when you just want to read the Tempest. With the eVersion of the Complete Works doesn't make your eReader any heavier than a single play, and again, it's free. What idiots would pay for electronic Shakespeare books? What idiots would expect you to?

Rant over.

Anyway, Cymbeline isn't one of Shakespeare's better known plays but I can't see any reason for that. For fans of Shakespeare, it's a very Shakespearean play. Love, betrayal, jealousy, disguises, royalty, a thirst for power. You know, the typical stuff. Based on legends of Celtic British royalty, it's a tough plot to summarize. For now, the Wikipedia synopsis will suffice. (It also helped me keep everyone straight.) One small annoyance: when Cymbeline's daughter runs away, disguises herself in drag and comes across her step-brothers, also in exile, and neither knows the other. We, the audience, are quite aware of the set-up and the scene could be rife with humour, awkwardness, anything. Unfortunately the situation is milked for all it's worth and comes across as silly and phony more than anything else. They bond right away and refer to one another as brothers, men, and so on. It should work, but it's run into the ground.

But it's Shakespeare and at his worst, he's still entertaining. And Cymbeline is not is his worst. The fidelity bet alone is worth the price of admission. It's a soap opera moment, yes, but when it's surrounded by Shakespearean wit, that kind of stuff is not only tolerated, it's welcomed.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Mordecai Richler: The Incomparable Atuk

I'd be hard pressed to name a Canadian author I look forward to reading more than Mordecai Richler. I guess it wouldn't be difficult to just read them all through one after the other, but I want to pace myself with him, just so I know there's more left to read.

The Incomparable Atuk is, like most Richler loves, a satirical comedy, mostly humorous but with ample doses of cynicism thrown in for good measure.

Summarizing The Incomparable Atuk is not as easy task. To say it's about an Inuk who finds himself the toast of the town in Toronto as the poet du jour is to skim over all the intricate plot details, ignore all those other eccentric characters, and miss those poisonous satirical barbs.

And yet it took me almost up to the halfway point to appreciate all the other stuff. Too many characters to keep track of, confused at what was going on, and what was Richler's beef anyway? Canadian celebrity? Canadian identity?

No, I don't think The Incomparable Atuk is as streamlined as Barney's Version, but certainly the seeds for that magnum opus were there. Here's one of my favourite moments when Atuk is speaking to his father who insists on being called "Old One" since being featured in a National Film Board short,
'Speak no more. Atuk, my son, I remember when your eyes were deep and true as the blue spring sea. I recall when your soul was pure and white as the noon iceberg. This is no more. Today--'

'For Christ's sake, will you cut out that crazy talk. You sound like you were auditioning for Disney again or something.'
And the proof that it's a brilliant piece of satire? Despite some of the dated language, most of the themes are still applicable to Canadian society today. At the end of my version, notes from Peter Gzowski reveal who many of the characters were supposedly based on. I knew none of the them (as the book was first published in '63), and yet I could still find similarities with modern day Canadians. Here's a scene involving a female newspaper columnist named Jean-Paul McEwen. She's stumped for an idea:
She could do a column on how glad she is to be a Canadian and out of the U.S. style rat-race. Naw. Old hat. McEwen felt wretched because she was not a woman to waste time. A quarrel with her mother ended up as a thought-piece on parenthood and the letters she got about the column made for a humorous minutorial on Letters I Get. Everywhere Jean-Paul McEwen went she took her tape recorder. You never knew who might say something useful or where you might come up with a honey of an idea. Even McEwen's vacations were not a costly waste. The funny things that happened to her were worth at least three columns.
If only she whined about the decreasing quality of shopping in Toronto or men who wear sandals instead of flip flops, she'd be Leah McLaren.

We really need another Richler. (Megan, write a book already.)